I like the United Kingdom’s new approach to solving its future energy demand problem. It has done the studies, analyzed the options and determined that nuclear fission can play an increasing role in providing clean, reliable, indigenous, affordable, and sustainable electricity. It is an interesting thought exercise to compare its current state and its prospects for growth to the US, a much larger country with many historical ties to the UK.
The UK’s current fission portfolio produces about 19% of the country’s electricity, almost exactly the same fraction as is produced in the US. Like the US, the British reactor fleet is a bit long in the tooth – Sizewell B, the newest unit, was completed in 1996, the same year as Watt’s Bar Unit 1, the last new nuclear plant completed in the United States. Like Watt’s Bar, Sizewell B experience numerous delays and cost overruns that helped strengthen the prevailing view at the end of the last millennium that nuclear power was more expensive than the alternatives. In both the US and the UK, nearly every new power plant built since 1996 has been fueled by natural gas, though both countries also have well established coal industries. The US coal industry has been more successful in retaining market share; it has retained 50% of the electricity market while coal in the the UK is down to 33%.
Though both countries have similar starting points, they seem to be picking different paths to a nuclear energy solution. The US has put in place a number of incentive programs and subsidy opportunities, and it has developed a new, untried, but supposedly streamlined licensing process that might take the first projects 42-48 months to complete. Under the new process only very limited construction activities might be allowed during the time before the construction and operating licenses (COL) are awarded. The chosen path has generated a lot of interest – when the Energy Policy Act of 2005 passed in August of 2005, there were only 2 projects in the works, both of which were under the NuStart consortium process. Now, there are at least 31 projects in various stages of planning, licensing and permitting.
The UK government took longer to reach its decision to encourage new nuclear power development, issuing its White Paper on Nuclear Power in January of 2008. The government engaged the country’s citizens in a collaborative discussion for several years before issuing the paper. Part of the decision is a firm position that the nuclear industry is going to have to stand on its own merits and financing. According to a recent BBC report titled UK ‘to seek more nuclear power’:
Mr Hutton (UK Business Secretary John Hutton) says private operators will be expected to meet the full cost of building nuclear plants, decommissioning and disposing of waste.
That stance has not discouraged some strong expressions of interest from all of the major nuclear plant vendors. Each one has been rapidly moving to develop partnerships with utility companies, to establish local business units, and to line up possible plant locations. The primary sites under consideration have been British Energy owned sites that have existing plants (that is another similarity to the US nuclear future), but late last week there was a new development that opens up a number of intriguing possibilities.
Like the US, Britain has a rather extensive inventory of large land holdings with a history of atomic technology involvement that has little to do with nuclear power production. (They were part of the atomic weapons complex.) The owner of those sites, the UK’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), has given notice to interested reactor developers that they have an opportunity during the next four weeks to take a look at the 18 sites and provide expressions of interest in developing them for power stations. At least two of the sites host operating MAGNOX reactors – in the UK there was a blurrier line between power production and weapons material production than the one that existed between weapons and commercial use in the US.
Mr. Hutton, the Business Secretary, has also indicated that the government would be happy to have far more than 19% of its electricity being produced in nuclear power plants.
He also said he would “pull out all the stops” to maximise the expansion of nuclear power, as an answer to climate change and Britain’s reliance on imported (spelling corrected from original) gas.
“We need the maximum contribution from nuclear sources in the next 10 to 15 years,” Mr Hutton” said. Asked if the government wanted the share of electricity generated from nuclear to increase beyond 19 per cent, he replied: “That’s the ambition we should have … I’d be very disappointed if it’s not significantly above the current level.”
(From UK Plans “Significant” Increase in Nuclear Power. Interestingly enough, the author of that post thinks there is something wrong with those statements. Oh well, at least he provided some good quotes.)
One thing that might help in that goal is a well considered evaluation of the actual state of the existing nuclear plants. Though there are some aging issues, it is quite possible that the lives of the existing plants can be extended even as new construction begins. As I understand the licensing laws in the UK, there is no fixed end of life for the operating plants. Each one is eligible to apply for continued permission to operate in ten year increments, with decisions made on the safety aspects and material condition of the plant each time. Of course, there will come a time when the cost of repairs becomes too great to justify continued operation, but there is no rush in making that determination.
In my opinion, the UK path of active cheerleading without any monetary incentives is far better and more likely to achieve substantial success than is the US decision to provide subsidies in a way that encourages companies to compete for maximum short term gain. The industry has enough detractors as it is, there is no need to add libertarians and free marketers to the opposition.